Raven Theatre. By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Directed by Cody Estle. With ensemble cast. 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Aeneas Sagar Hemphill
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's 2007 play takes us into the world of St. Joseph's Preparatory School for Boys, a D.C. prep school that serves as a training ground for the future leaders of America. It's where privilege is handed down, where the lucky few are pumped up with importance and moral value ("good boys and true" is the St. Joe's mantra) while at the same time being shielded from social or personal responsibility—the perfect illustration of the country's clashing glamor and darkness.
It's a world that Aguirre-Sacasa, as a Georgetown Prep alumnus, knows very well. It's also a world I know, at least peripherally. Growing up in the D.C. suburbs I saw schools like Gonzaga and Georgetown Prep turn many a sheltered, nerdy acquaintance into academic and athletic supermen. I can't even imagine what it would have been like in the Reagan era in which this play takes place, when a culture of deregulation and booming top-earner excess made the rich and connected that much more powerful and influential, while those on the outside fell further into the cracks.
Brandon Hardy (Will Kiley) is the shining example of this dissonance. He is our first impression of the school: a handsome, confident, blue-blazered young man with eye contact so magnetic you'd swear he practices in the mirror. He gives us the familiar tour-guide spiel, introducing a utopia that will turn your kid into a well-rounded man, a leader. And then we find out about the sex tape that's made its way around the campus, in which a boy who looks a lot like Brandon—from behind at least, as his face is obscured—has sex with an unidentified girl. In the early stages of the scandal, Coach Russell Shea (Karl Potthoff) attempts to handle the matter in private, bringing in Brandon's mother Elizabeth (Maggie Cain), but as often occurs, the situation blows up beyond the characters' abilities to contain it, putting Brandon's future in jeopardy.
Good Boys and True is definitely not the first dramatization of the underbelly of prep-school culture, and certainly won't be the last. But despite the playwright's personal familiarity with this world, the play's treatment of it feels superficial. Its focus on the relationship between Brandon and his mother is smart, but the majority of the play is spent on the mother's journey from denial to acceptance, which it turns out is not all that compelling. The revelation of the tape is an excellent opportunity: Here is a parent whose implicit trust in her son and in the school she has entrusted his care to is shaken to the core, yet all she does is ask her son and her family over and over again to reassure her that her son is still good. A perfectly realistic self-deceptive response, but then it leaves these other parts of the story hanging. She never tries to talk to Brandon's friends, including Brandon's sort-of-boyfriend Justin (Derek Herman) who she later reveals she's had some idea about. The son's life and the mother's never directly overlap and thus never feed one another. Instead, the play relies on a couple of poorly-handled revelations and an anticlimactic mother-son fight which takes us right the point at which the story is about to get interesting.
Raven Theatre's production doesn't help. The lockers on either side of the stage make a nice image, but the majority of the action takes place in a bare arena. Empty space provides an exciting set of challenges theatrically, but Cody Estle's direction manages to ignore nearly all of them. Little attention is paid to physical relationships or visual storytelling, with the exception of the locker room scenes in which the actors have some business to work with, and their performances become noticeably more organic as a result. Most of the play, however, is performed with two actors facing each other standing still and emoting across the spacial divide. When trapped like this, there's nowhere to go but melodrama—and as the play pushes on, off it goes. Raven's Good Boys and True is not without its nice moments, but a flawed script and generally static production hold it back.